Understanding Chocolate Flavour, Texture, & Astringency

Understanding Chocolate Flavour, Texture, & Astringency

Breaking Down Chocolate Tasting

At Cocoa Runners, the craft chocolatediscovery and  subscription box company that I co-founded, webreak down samplingchocolate into five experiences:taste, flavour, texture, mouthfeel, and melt. These aren’t the only aspects to appreciating craft chocolate, but they’re a good starting point. By considering these points, we beleive that you can better evaluate the chocolate you’re tasting,become more aware of differences among barsand -most importantly – have more fun.

Taste vs. Flavour

Hold your nose while sucking a piece of chocolate. It may seem strange, but this exercise can help you understand the difference between taste and flavour.

With your nose closed, you may be able to identify sweetness but probably won’t experience much more. When you open your nose, you’ll notice a range of flavours.

This is because there are five basic tastes, which we experience through our taste buds: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. But flavour is created by our sense of smellwhich is both orthonasal and retronasal (ie what you sniff and what you experience as you chew and swallow).  And because good chocolate melts when it hits your tongue, and because craft chocolate contains so many flavours, you can embark on journeys that will often go through multiple twists and turns.

So now that your nose is open, what flavours do you notice? As with coffee, there are hundreds of chemical compounds that contribute to aroma and flavour in cacao, and it can be difficult to articulate exactly what you’re experiencing. All too often the words can be literally on the tip of your tongue – but hard to articulate.  So it helps sometimes to have some  common descriptorsto hand such asispicy, fruity, green, floral, bright, sharp and malted(and see the below

We also suggest trying a couple of bars at the same time as this also can help you appreciate and enjoy the different flavours of each bar.  We’d also suggest you think about

Keepinga tasting notebook and list what flavours stand out to you in each chocolate you try, as well as how much you enjoyed the overall experience. You might notice that chocolate made with cacao from one origin has a unique profile or that you enjoy a particular flavour note more than others.

Texture & Mouthfeel

Texture is relatively straightforward – it’s simply how smooth or grainy the chocolate feels in your mouth.

Compare stone-ground bars like those from Taza to smoothly conched bars from Akesson’s, Bonnatand most other craft chocolate makers. The former are almost like a biscuit in texture.

To evaluate texture during tastings at Cocoa Runners, we use four basic descriptors that are easy to understand: smooth, chewy, coarse, and unrefined.

Mouthfeel can be more complicated and confusing to categorise. During tastings, we evaluate mouthfeel as intense, buttery, mellow, or clean. But to be honest, I’m not sure we’ve completely cracked a meaningful way of describing mouthfeel yet.

The difference between butteriness and intensity is clear, as is that betweencreaminess and astringency. None of these elements are tastes, textures, or flavour. They’re something slightly different that we categorise as mouthfeel.But we often confuse creaminess with sweetness and astringency with bitterness.

Understanding Astringency

In craft chocolate, the difference betweenastringency and bitterness is really important – astringency is part of the fun, butbitterness is notsucha desirable quality.

Astringency is classically defined as when the saliva in your mouth is “pulled” away so you have the sensation of drying, “roughing”, or puckering.You’ve probably noticedastringency in foods and drinks with lots of tannins, such as red wine, whisky, roasted coffee beans, persimmons, and some teas.

Astringency is very different from bitterness, but the two are often confused. Perhaps the problem is that in the global West, many astringent foods are also bitterso we conflate the two sensations.

Bitterness is caused by polyphenols, which naturally occur in cacao. During fermentation, a lot of these compounds are converted in to less-bitter tasting chemicals. We need some bitterness to balance the other flavours in chocolate, but a very bitter bar may be a result of using cacao that hasn’t been fermented for long enough.

When we eat or drink an astringent substance, proteins in the food or drink combine with our saliva to irritate our trigeminal nerve Try placing cacao nibs on your tongue,butif you can hold them still and don’t suckor chewyou shouldn’t noticeou won’t notice any astringency. But once you suck or chew, you’ll notice astringent sensations as the saliva irritates your trigeminal nerve.

In tastings, we try to encourage customers to try cacao nibsand then a couple of different 100% cacao bars. We’re usually asked why there is such a range of intensity and astringency among the bars. There’s no single answerto this.

The perception of astringencycan beinfluenced by the amount of cocoa butter – basically the more butter, the more “smooth”and “creamy” the sensation and theless astringent. The size of grind can accentuate this further (the smaller the cacao particle, the more cacaobutter to particle). The varietyof cacao usedalso plays a role, as do roast and fermentation choices.  Melt and temper also play a role.

One other interesting experiment is trying to “super saturate” your trigeminal nerve by for example, seeing how the flavours of different chocolates are altered when you try an (astringent) expresso, strong red wine or strong spirit.  More often than not you should be able to detect the “fruity” or “earthy” or “floral” flavours of the chocolate when you’ve already stimulated your trigeminal nerve with another astringent experience

The Importance of Melt

How chocolate melts is influenced by a multitude of factors including most notably it’s “temper” (see below), it’s age, how finely it’s ground, the amount of cacao butter included and the thickness of the bar.  And as a chocolate bar melts, you should be able to go on a journey of different flavours. Put a piece on your tongue and let it melt, taking care not to chew.A rich Dominican bar might start with roasted notes but then develop into an earthy finish. Or the initial berry notes of a Madagascan chocolate may transform into a citrus flavour.

If your sample is superthin, it can be more difficult to pick up the different stages of flavour, so start out using thinnish (but not too thin or too thick) pieces of chocolate in your tasting exercises. Astringency is a slow build (it cantake10to 20seconds for us to experience it), so a thin bar will seem less astringent because the chocolate melted before you had time to perceive much of it.

It’s also important to make sure that the bar is still “in temper” and hasn’t “bloomed”.  Chocolate has a number of different crystalline structures commonly called Crystal Structures 1 through 6. For appreciating a chocolate bar, you want a well tempered bar — ie a bar that is at crystal structure 5 as this is the “temper” that will literally melt on your tongue and therefore release those great flavours and aromas.  If you’ve ever left a bar in the sun, it’s melted and then you’ve placed it in a fridge to ”retemper” it, you may have noticed that the bar is a lot harder, more brittle and it may have some white bits on the surface which are the fats separating out.  And as the bar won’t melt as easily, it won’t release all those wonderful flavour volatiles … so it may well be less enjoyable.

Improving your sensory analysis of chocolate can help you make more informed choices on what bars you buy and better describe the sensations you experience. So why not try a few tasting exercises and see what you notice? Be sure to keep notes on the cacao content, texture, thickness, and other factors to identify any patterns.And similar to cupping, trying multiple bars (or even just a few), makes the distinctions and differences of each bar easier to appreciate.